Last week, as Ofcom announced restrictions on TV food advertising that could cost the broadcasting industry £39 millon a year, and BSkyB geared up for its £940 million move on ITV, a smaller announcement had already seeped out of the communications regulator regarding the radio industry.

While Ofcom was labelled “Draconian” by some broadcasters for its restrictions on TV advertising, the regulator seems set to take a more enlightened approach towards commercial radio. The day before the food ad guidance was issued, Ofcom had announced its intention to examine the future of the regulation and licensing of radio companies. The result could be a relative bonanza for commercial radio. While Ofcom stands accused of meddling in TV advertising regulation, its interference in the radio industry could turn out to be entirely welcome.

Ofcom’s statement reads like a charity appeal for a dying dog, announcing its commitment to assess difficulties faced by the radio industry, such as radio advertising stalling as advertisers go online. It is also committed to the problem of digital radio’s success putting a strain on local, analogue stations. As a possible way forward, it has identified changing current regulatory obligations, such as those governing a station’s format.

The net result could be a lifting of guidelines on the type of programming a station will be required to broadcast. This could have a positive effect on modernising the industry, and it’s good to see the regulator helping out a medium that may be facing some big issues, but it seems a little less than even-handed, as the very next day Ofcom chooses to penalise a TV industry which is also up against it in ad revenue terms.

Sadly, there is also no guarantee that more flexible rules will be capitalised on by some commercial radio companies. After all, many are starting to attract criticism for their lack of innovation within the existing rules. Only this week, Trevor Dann, the director of the Radio Academy and the former head of music at Radio 1, attacked commercial stations for their narrow playlists, adding: “There is nothing wrong in playing a Lloyd Cole record every once in a while.”

While many will struggle to agree with the above, you could argue that more responsibility and innovation could come from the radio companies, especially as the RadioCentre boss, Andrew Harrison, recently claimed: “We need to remind all of our stakeholders in our industry that commercial radio is a vibrant, dynamic medium with a positive future.”

This is especially true of a number of more innovative digital formats, which could hold the key to the future for commercial radio. In the meantime, while there is still a way to go before this consultation concludes, UK commercial radio must be feeling more chuffed at Ofcom’s treatment than its TV counterparts.

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Publication: Brand Republic

Publication date: 24/11/06